The Otter of Death by Betty Webb is part cozy mystery and part thriller, with portions delving into the very relevant issue of sexual harassment. This story combines current issues with information about zoo animals including some light amusing scenes that make for an interesting read.
The plot has the main character, zookeeper Teddy Bentley contemplating her life changes that will happen once she marries Sheriff Rejas. Her thoughts are interrupted when she spots an otter swimming with a smart phone. After taking the device she discovers a photograph of a murder-in-progress. Rumors swirl that the victim, Stuart Booth, PhD, a local Marine Biology instructor, is a notorious sexual harasser of young female students. Teddy decides to become an amateur sleuth putting her own life at risk as the investigation progresses to find the killer.
Elise Cooper: How did you get the idea for this “Gunn Zoo” series?
Betty Webb: I was a journalist for twenty years. After I retired I did not know what to do with my time. Having grown up on a farm with a love for animals I decided to volunteer at the Phoenix zoo. One day I was watching this giant anteater, Lucy, playing with her pup, and said to another volunteer ‘I am surprised no one has written anything about these animals.’ She looked at me and said, ‘I thought you were a writer.’ Right then the idea for my first zoo book was born. I knew I would make it into a series.
EC: The cover of the otter with the cell phone is very cute?
BW: It is actually based on a true story. When I was in this little town, which is what I based Gunn Landing on, I was told to be careful with the otters. If I drop something they will grab it. In fact, I saw this otter swimming around with a small video camera. This image was stuck in my mind, but I changed the camera to a smart phone.
EC: Boats play a significant role in these stories?
BW: We have a close friend who owns a boat in Santa Barbara, which is the basis for the boat in this story. After spending a couple of summers on it I realized there are many difficulties in owning one. Everything develops mold so it is not as romantic as most people make it out to be.
EC: Because you delve into the topic of abuse the genre would not be considered a cozy mystery?
BW: I wanted to write something that could tie everything together. When I was in college I heard about this situation of sexual harassment from a friend of mine. Those picked upon are usually a little withdrawn because they are easy victims. I never experienced it personally since I was raised on a farm. What all farm girls have in common is that we are very quick to defend ourselves. After the Weinstein issue became public, I thought how this book is appropriate to the times.
EC: You refer to the bald eagle in your book?
BW: I based it on the two bald eagles in the Phoenix zoo. One hurt by a car; a zoo visitor hurt the other one. It was in a cage, recuperating from a broken wing, and they shook its cage. It caused the eagle to break its beak. Unfortunately, there are not a lot of laws that protect zoo animals and wildlife. For example, a tiger attacked two boys, after they kept slinging rocks at it. Unbelievable that one of the boys got a $50,000 settlement from the zoo for the fright suffered. There was another time when a little boy got away from his mom and went into the gorilla enclosure. The guards were afraid for the boy’s safety so they shot the gorilla. I wrote something similar in this book but with an overall happy ending and the vicious animal was changed to a swan.
EC: Please describe Teddy?
BW: I based her on a younger version of myself. She is very independent, forms strong bonds, and loves animals. We both had to deal with our parents’ grief. I centered it around my parents actions and multiplied it by seven times. My mother was a Beauty Queen, quite the clotheshorse, and was married seven times. The difference is that Teddy’s mom is protective of her and my mom was not. Because I wished my mom was more protective, I made Teddy’s mom that way.
EC: Do you have a favorite zoo animal?
BW: Lucy the anteater.
EC: What do you want readers to get out of it?
BW: I wanted to show that a lot of things that harm animals are not done on purpose. In this book, I wrote about the Feral Cat and how their urine has this parasite that kills otters. Then there is the flushable kitty litter, which empties out into the ocean that kills sea life. Wildlife has problems due to the interference of human beings; even though sometimes it is not on purpose. Something that seems harmless to us is actually fatal to animals as they come in contact with it. I try to bring out examples of how we harm wildlife without ever meaning too.
EC: Can you give a heads up about your next books?
BW: There will be a Lena Jones book, the final one in the series. I will be writing a new series about the art scene in Paris. I thought this book would be the final one in the zoo series. But was told that I need to keep writing more books, so I will probably continue to write this series.
Welcome to today’s #TeaserTuesday and First Chapter First Paragraph Tuesday Intros, featuring The Otter of Death by Betty Webb!
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First Chapter First Paragraph Tuesday Intros
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Every Tuesday Vicki @ I’d Rather Be at the Beach now hosts First Chapter First Paragraph Tuesday Intros, where readers share the first paragraph of a book that they are reading or plan to read soon.
ABOUT THE BOOK:
The Otter of Death (Gunn Zoo Mystery #5)
While taking the yearly “otter count” at a marsh near Gunn Landing Harbor, California, zookeeper Theodora Bentley sees Maureen, her favorite otter, swimming around clutching someone’s expensive smartphone. When Teddy rescues the device, she discovers a photograph of a murder-in-progress. A hasty search soon turns up the still-warm body of Stuart Booth, PhD, a local Marine Biology instructor.
Booth was a notorious sexual harasser of young female students, so the list of suspects is long enough to make Teddy wonder if the crime will ever be solved. But when her friend, Lila, one of Booth’s original accusers, is arrested and charged with his murder, Teddy begins to investigate. This creates considerable tension with Teddy’s fiance, Sheriff Joe Rejas. He believes the ever-inquisitive zookeeper might be putting her own life at risk, and so orders her to butt out.
Concerned for her accused friend, Teddy ignores Joe’s ultimatum. She questions not only members of Gunn Landing’s moneyed social elite, but also the other side of the financial spectrum – the financially strapped young women willing to do almost anything to pay for their college tuition. Alarmed by Teddy’s meddling, Booth’s killer fights back – first with a death threat, then via gunshot.
In this fifth Gunn Zoo Mystery, Teddy is torn between living a peaceful life on her Monterey Bay houseboat with her three-legged dog DJ Bonz, or moving inland to marry Joe, who comes with kids and a mother who has her own mysterious agenda. The choice is scary for Teddy – who has barely been managing her own many-times-married mother, and her imperious employer, Aster Edwina Gunn, overlord of the famed Gunn Zoo. Teddy’s life is further complicated by a wayward snow monkey named Kabuki, taunter of teenage boys. The zookeeper’s dedication to her charges – including the anteater, the koala, the llama, and Magnus, the polar bear cub from Iceland (met in Teddy’s last adventure, The Puffin of Death), never falters in a cleverly plotted series rich in characters and in animal lore.
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As a journalist and literary critic for more than 20 years, Betty — a resident of Scottsdale, Arizona, where her detective Lena Jones also lives — has interviewed U. S. presidents, Nobel prize-winners, astronauts who’ve walked on the moon, polygamy runaways, the homeless, and the hopeless.
Now retired from journalism to write full time, she also contributes the Small Press column for Mystery Scene magazine and teaches creative writing at Phoenix College.
In her writing, Betty makes liberal use of her own varied background. She earned her way through art school by working as a folk singer but eventually gave up singing to concentrate on her art career. At various times she has picked cotton, raised chickens which laid blue eggs (Speckled Hamburgs), worked in a zoo, been a go-go dancer and horse breeder, taught Sunday School, founded a literary magazine, helped rebuild a long-abandoned 120-year-old farm house, and back-packed the Highlands of Scotland alone.
In 1982, Betty moved to Scottsdale, Arizona, where her Lena Jones novels are set, but her roots are in Hamilton, Alabama, where most of her extended family still lives. In 2000 she published The Webb Family of Alabama: Survivors of Change, which focused on the descendants of her half-Seneca, half-English great-great-grandfather, William Douglas Webb, who ran away to sea at the age of 16, then after 14 wild years, settled down to farm peacefully in Hamilton. Recent DNA testing, however, has revealed that her seafaring ancestor harbored a big secret: he might not have been a Webb after all, but the descendant of a New Jersey colonist family named Price. Betty is now working to unravel this real-life mystery: did William Douglas Price change his name to Webb. Was he on the run from the law? (As a mystery writer, she kinda hopes he was)
On her mother’s side, Betty can trace her roots back to the Barons of Riddell in medieval Scotland. The Riddells, friends and financial supporters of the poet Robert Burns, did not always enjoy the best of reputations. The opera, Lucia di Lammermore, about a young bride who decapitates her husband on their wedding night, was based upon a real life incident in the Riddell family. But the Riddells maintain that Lucy (her real name) merely scratched her bridegroom, and that he simply overreacted when he screamed out, “Murder!” Anyway, that’s the Riddells’ story and they’re sticking to it.
“The impact of my unusual family upon my life has been profound,” Betty says. “That’s why I thought it would be intriguing to create a detective who had no idea of where she came from or who her parents were. Creating the orphaned Lena Jones has helped me appreciate my own ancestral heritage – both the good and the bad.” About the recent DNA testing results, she adds, “All this time the Webbs were keeping an even bigger secret than the Riddells — and they didn’t even know they were! How could I not have become a mystery novelist.”
Looking forward to visiting your blogs and seeing what your Teaser Tuesday and First Chapter First Paragraph Tuesday Intros, are this week!
Luv Sassy x